Covid: Scotland may be 'close to' scrapping face coverings for pupils, Sturgeon says as school restrictions relaxed
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In an update to MSPs on Tuesday, the First Minister confirmed all current Covid measures will continue for at least another three weeks, including the vaccine passport scheme, contact tracing, and the requirement to wear face coverings.
The Scottish Government continues to be optimistic, with Scotland in a more positive situation than expected, Ms Sturgeon said.
But the First Minister warned that cases remain high, the NHS is still under pressure, and a new and potentially more transmissible strain of the Omicron variant is under investigation.
The number of new cases has risen in the past week, with the biggest increase in the under 15s.
While face coverings will remain mandatory for older school pupils, Ms Sturgeon hinted this measure may soon change following advice from the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children's Issues.
In a meeting last week the committee found Scotland may be “close to” a time when face coverings are no longer needed in schools, Ms Sturgeon said. The next meeting of the committee will be on February 8.
The government has followed separate advice from the committee to relax other measures in schools, returning them to the situation before the Omicron variant arrived.
This eases the requirement for bubbles within schools, and restrictions around visitors and school trips.
"No-one wants young people to have to wear face coverings in the class room for a moment longer than necessary,” Ms Sturgeon said.
"But given the current uncertainty about infection trends in the immediate future, and the relatively high levels of Covid in the younger age groups, continued caution is prudent at this stage.”
It comes as 7,565 new cases of Covid were reported in Scotland on Tuesday.
Some 1,177 people were in hospital with recently-confirmed Covid, while 29 were in intensive care.
An updated strategic framework for dealing with Covid will be published by the Scottish Government after the February recess, Ms Sturgeon said.
The First Minister also updated parliament on the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, which is currently designated as a variant under investigation.
Some 26 cases of this variant have been confirmed in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said.
She added: “It is important to stress that, at this stage, there is no evidence that BA.2 causes more severe disease than the main Omicron variant.
"Nor, at this stage, is there any evidence that BA.2 has any greater ability to escape the immunity conferred by vaccines or previous infection.
“However, BA.2 does appear to have the ability to out-run the main Omicron variant, which may indicate that it is more transmissible.
"Investigations into this are ongoing, both in the UK and in other countries, such as Denmark, where the sub-variant has been circulating for longer.”
The Scottish Conservatives continue to oppose the requirement for face coverings in schools.
“Adults can be in pubs without a mask but young people are having their education held back by being forced to wear one in the classroom,” leader Douglas Ross said.
“The First Minister says no one wants young people to have to wear masks in class for a moment longer than necessary, so just what needs to happen for her government to finally remove this requirement?”
Ms Sturgeon replied that expert advice and the example of other countries suggests a cautious approach is the best way to get through the remainder of the pandemic.
She added: "Adults have a choice about going to the pub and mixing with other people, children don't have a choice about going to school and mixing with other people.
"And children are still less vaccinated than adults because the vaccination of children was recommended by the JCVI at a much later stage.
"These are all the reasons why it is right to continue to take a precautionary approach to the protection of children.”
Full minutes from the most recent meeting of the Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children's Issues, on January 25, have not yet been published.
During the previous meeting in early January the group of experts, chaired by Edinburgh University’s Professor Linda Bauld, said they supported the Covid-19 mitigation measures in place at that time as schools had recently returned after the festive break and the impact of this on transmission was not yet known.
The group considered advising an expansion of these measures, to include mandatory face coverings for children in upper primary, but decided against this on the balance of benefits to potential harms.
Other parties also took up the issue of Covid mitigation in schools.
Labour’s Jackie Baillie called for action to improve ventilation in classrooms.
“Covid cases are rising sharply in schools and thousands of pupils are now facing serious disruption to their learning,” she said.
“More and more pupils are missing school due to the virus, with vital learning days lost.”
She added: “Pupils and teachers don’t need warm words from the First Minister, they need action to improve ventilation in classrooms. That's why Labour has called for air filters to be installed in classrooms across Scotland.
“To fail these pupils at such a pivotal point in their lives would be shameful – the government must act and swiftly.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats asked Ms Sturgeon to publish more evidence about CO2 monitoring in schools, citing a report from 2020/21 which found that several schools in Edinburgh failed CO2 threshold tests.
The Scottish Greens backed Nicola Sturgeon’s move to retain face coverings in schools.
Education spokesperson Ross Greer said: “Many young people are under-vaccinated or entirely unvaccinated.
"Whilst their vaccination rates are fortunately rising, the current situation creates understandable anxiety for school staff who spend their days indoors with this age group, as well as for pupils themselves…. it’s clear some caution is still required in schools for the time being.”